In Commonwealth v. Mangel, 2018 WL 1322179 (March 15, 2018), the Pennsylvania Superior Court adopted a standard for authenticating social media posts under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 901. The Court held that “the proponent of social media evidence must present direct or circumstantial evidence that tends to corroborate the identity of the author of the communication in question, such as testimony from the person who sent or received the communication, or contextual clues in the communication tending to reveal the identity of the sender.”
On June 26, 2016, Nathan Cornell was assaulted at a graduation party. In the Criminal Complaint filed against Tyler Mangel, the alleged assailant, the Commonwealth sought to introduce screenshots of certain pages of a Facebook account for “Tyler Mangel,” consisting of online and mobile device chat messages as well as certain photographs uploaded to Facebook.
The Commonwealth presented the testimony of Erie County Detective Anne Styn, whom the trial court qualified as an expert in computer forensics. Detective Styn testified that the Facebook account bore the name of “Tyler Mangel,” listed the account holder as living in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and contained several images of the Defendant. Additionally, the Facebook subscriber records, obtained from Facebook, indicated that the Facebook account had been verified by a cell phone number belonging to Tyler Mangel’s mother.
In authenticating the social media posts as belonging to Tyler Mangel, the Court refused to apply unique rules for authenticating electronic communications stating ‘[w]e believe that e-mail messages and similar forms of electronic communication can be properly authenticated within the existing framework of Pa.R.E. 901 and Pennsylvania case law.” The Court, following their decision in Commonwealth v. Koch, 39 A.3d 996 (Pa. Super. 2011), held that authenticating electronic communications “requires more than mere confirmation that the number or address belonged to a particular person. Circumstantial evidence, which tends to corroborate the identity of the sender, is required.”
The Superior Court held that, while the Commonwealth submitted sufficient evidence to show that the Facbeook account belonged to Tyler Mangel, insufficient evidence was provided to show that Mr. Mangel himself was the author of the posts sought to be introduced into evidence.
The Mangel case holds that when authenticating electronic communications, the party seeking to introduce the evidence must show not only that the individual was the owner of the email address, Facebook account, Twitter account, etc., but that the individual, in fact, authored the post.